The “Mormon issue”

The Washington Post has a long piece by Jason Horowitz about Helen Radkey, an extraordinarily unpleasant woman who, having been excommunicated from Mormonism, spends her life trying to embarrass the LDS church. Her focus is on the practice of posthumous baptism and marriage, especially of Jews.

The story is well-written and compelling: the weirdnesses of unfamiliar religions are always stranger than the weirdnessess of familiar religions.  Mormons believe that they can perform rituals to make dead Jews into Mormons; fundamentalist Protestants and hard-core Catholics believe that a loving God torments dead Jews throughout eternity for not being Christians.  One of those beliefs is strange, and the other is familiar; but it doesn’t seem to me that the strange belief is the more offensive of the two.

But the story’s opening paragraphs are something the reporter should be ashamed of, and the headline is something the editors of the Washington Post should be ashamed of.  The headline reads:

In Mormon Files,  Researcher Helen Radkey
Seeks to Cause a Headache for Romney

That’s consistent with the lede:

Mitt Romney has major headaches named Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. This month, he also had Helen Radkey.

Foul! Unconstitutional roughness, journalist. Fifteen yards. First down. “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

Let’s say this once, so it doesn’t have be said ever again: Mitt Romney is no more accountable for posthumous conversions than Rick Santorum is for clerical child molesting and cover-ups, or Barack Obama for the Rev. Mr. Wright’s Biblical exegeses. “Sunday beliefs” should be presumed irrelevant to the conduct of public office unless and until a candidate chooses to invoke them. There are a dozen good reasons not to want Mitt Romney to be President, but his religion is not one of them.

Footnote Many Jews will be outraged to read that their forebears have been posthumously converted to Mormonism. But I think we should take it in the generous spirit in which it is intended; if the Mormons, unlike orthodox Christians, want to save us rather than having us burn in Hell, we don’t have to believe that they can succeed to be grateful for the kind thought.

Or we could instead accept it in the the spirit reflected in the old story about the elderly, pious Jew who, on his deathbed, tells his eldest son that he needs something. The son approaches the bedside and says,

“Yes, Abba, what do you want?”
“I want a priest.”
“A priest? What do you want a priest for?
“I want to convert.”
Convert? You’ve been an observant Jew your whole life! Why should you want to convert?”
“Better one of them should die!”

Update From our “It’s-always-even-weirder than you thought it was” department:

A commenter on the WaPo website was diligent enough to search the LDS homepage and discover an official Church discussion of the issue. That discussion points to a passage (First Corinthians, 15:25-29) which seems to refer to a similar practice in the early Christian church. Here’s the KJV translation:

For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy [that] shall be destroyed [is] death. For he hath put all things under his feet. But when he saith all things are put under [him, it is] manifest that he is excepted, which did put all things under him. And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all. Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?

Sure sounds as if some early Christians underwent a second baptism on behalf of the deceased (perhaps relatives or friends?). The floor is open to anyone who knows the orthodox Christian take on this passage. As far as I know, non-Mormons no longer practice such a rite, but it does seem like a reasonable reaction to the otherwise intolerable thought that someone is suffering through eternity.

Just a reminder here: the belief in the eternal damnation of non-Christians, attributed above to “fundamentalist Protestants and hardcore Catholics” is indeed held, today, largely by fringey people, most of them with hard hearts and weak minds. But virtually everyone who called himself a Christian up until the 18th Century would have believed it: and believed, moreover, that adhering to the wrong brand of Christianity also led to Hellfire. Jonathan Edwards and Cotton Mather wouldn’t have considered that belief remotely controversial, and they would have had St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther and John Calvin on their side.

Progress comes slowly, but it does come: that’s why conservatives need to stand athwart history, yelling “Stop!”

How much does Newt Gingrich hate Mitt Romney?

Mitt Romney and his SuperPac not only destroyed Newt Gingrich’s campaign, they assassinated his character: with a little bit of help, of course, from Newton Leroy himself. The Gingrich campaign, having morphed from a book tour into a serious run (for one brief, scary moment) at the Presidency, has now been transformed again, this time into a revenge drama.

But just how angry is Gingrich?

Is he angry enough, for example, to withdraw from the race, putting Romney in the position that was always Romney’s nightmare: head to head against a single extremist? Now that would be a low blow.

Santorum’s surge after Tuesday’s hat trick – he’s now even with, or even ahead of, Romney in national polls of Republicans – shows, for about he fourth time, how badly most of the GOP base doesn’t want Mitt Romney as the nominee: they’d coalesce around Hannibal Lecter if he were the clear alternative.

Santorum, with fewer wives than Gingrich and a less spectacular history of influence-peddling, simply does not present the same target-rich environment that Gingrich does in the context of a Republican primary. Even without the big bucks, Santorum might make a race of it, if it came down to a choice simple enough for even a Tea Partier to understand.

I don’t think this will happen, for the same reason that Bill Clinton missed the chance to take his revenge by resigning in early 1999, which would have stirred up sympathy for Clinton and rage against his foes while allowing Gore to campaign as the incumbent. Yes, Gingrich cherishes his grudges; but it will probably turn out that he cherishes his media appearances even more.

How pleasant it is when friends come from afar!

I regard reading most Red blogs (with such key exceptions as some of the Volokh Conspirators or Megan McArdle or Reihan Salam) as unpleasant but necessary work, like cleaning septic fields. Most of the Red bloggers I used to admire and learn from switched teams during the Reign of Error.

But right now I’m enjoying the chore, and finding much to agree with. When Riehl World View describes Romney as having “gone from unlikeable to detestable,” I can only nod, and admire the fine turn of phrase. And when he threatens that he and his fellow wing-nuts will take their ball and go home if Romney is nominated, I can only smile. On the other hand, could there be a more accurate description of Newt Gingrich than Peggy Noonan’s “angry little attack muffin”?

Footnote The headline is from an old translation of the Confucian Analects, Book I, section 1. It might seem to refer only to the pleasure of a visit from a friend who lives far away. But my teacher Paul Desjardins taught that it meant also the pleasure of finding agreement across intellectual distance. I don’t agree with Mr. Riehl on much, but it’s good to know that he can recognize a scoundrel when he sees one, and that he acknowledges – from across the partisan divide – Barack Obama’s personal, moral superiority to Gov. Ken-Doll.

Legacy

So Gingrich and Romney are fighting over which one is the true heir of Ronald Reagan. (And Sarah Palin thinks the Romneyites and the media are being mean to poor widdle Newtie.) Seems to me that depends on which aspect of the Reagan legacy you’re counting.

If you liked the idea of running a cocaine-dealing operation out of the White House basement, then Romney the CEO should be the better bet. But if what you really admire is selling weapons to Iran to finance an illegal war in Nicaragua, that’s the kind of hare-brained scheme that comes naturally to Gingrich but would never occur to Romney.

But the real essence of Reagan, it seems to me, was his post-modernism. Remember the woman who bought an orange with Food Stamps and a bottle of vodka with the change? Utterly impossible, of course. But that didn’t matter to Reagan; it was a good line, and he read it well, and its truth-value was utterly irrelevant.

In that regard, Romney wins the Reagan Look-Alike Contest hands-down. Gingrich tells his share of whoppers, but you get the sense (at least I do) that he knows he’s lying, and feels slightly bad about it. Romney, like Reagan, seems to regard politics as a truth-free zone, where you can say “I approve this message” one day and claim you never heard it the next, without even blushing.

Good news and bad news

In a Southern Republican primary, adultery turned out to be less of a burden for a candidate than Cayman Islands bank accounts. That reflects a clearer moral sense than I would have credited Southern Republicans with.

On the other side of the ledger, a single billionaire donating $5 million to a Super-PAC completely turned the campaign around in a week. $5M is chump change compared to the stakes in the American Presidency. If unlimited amounts of untraceable cash are going to be sloshing around, there’s no way to prevent the Chinese government, or the Iranian government, or the Saudi government, from playing the game. It isn’t hard for government-sized operations to channel the relevant amounts of money to U.S.-based corporations under their effective control.

Sheldon Adelson made most of his billions in Macao, which is Chinese territory; you can believe that Adelson’s political activities are immune from Chinese pressure if you like, but you can’t reasonably doubt that if China needed a tame U.S. billionaire it could easily create one. Campaign finance reform sounds like a boring topic, but fixing it in the wake of Citizens United isn’t just a matter of asserting democratic values over plutocratic ones; it’s a matter of national sovereignty and national security.

Huntsman lands a blow to Romney’s gut

I was worried that Gov. Romney had gotten some sort of Invulnerability Potion from his friend Professor Snape, but Gov. Huntsman managed to hit him hard this morning.  Romney had hammered Huntsman for serving as Barack Obama’s Ambassador to China, and …

“Country first” is pretty good, but bringing in his sons in uniform was brilliant.

This reinforces my belief that Huntsman is dangerous: an extreme conservative who is intelligent and articulate and isn’t an obvious lunatic. But what’s with the hair-do?

57 Communists and 100,000 jobs

The Joe McCarthy character in The Manchurian Candidate can’t keep track of how many Communists he’s claiming have infiltrated the government, so his wife – also  his KGB handler – picks the number 57 off a Heinz ketchup bottle and tells him that’s the official number.

It’s been clear for some time that Mitt Romney’s “100,000 jobs created” number has essentially the same provenance as “57 Communists.” When challenged on the number earlier, the surrogate super-PAC that was running ads based on it simply said “We aren’t supplying that information.” Now the campaign claims that the figure is a gross figure, based mostly on job growth at Staples, while the candidate himself insists that it’s a “net-net” figure.

Too much to hope, of course, that reporters other than Glenn Kessler and Calvin Woodward will do actual reporting on this, but it’s possible that the Democrats will be able to keep it alive. I like Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s “job cremator” line, and I hope we hear more of it.

Of course in real life “job creation” is a slippery concept, and how Romney operated his vulture-capitalist enterprise isn’t all that relevant to his potential as a President.  But his utterly post-modern attitude toward fact – leading him to make what Orwell referred to as statements not even bearing as much relationship to the truth as an ordinary honest lie – is a central character issue. It is no accident, comrades, that Romney is Karl Rove’s favorite candidate.